Detective Chief Inspector Ava Turner was blue-lighting it southbound out of Edinburgh, towards Roslin Glen. The roads were getting icy already, preparing for freezing temperatures overnight. The weather was no match, though, for the chill brought by the 999 call she was listening to on repeat in preparation for the scene she was attending.
‘Help me, please, help me…’
‘Can you tell me your name?’
‘Bridget. My…my boyfriend’s dead. He was stabbed.’
‘Where are you now, Bridget?’
‘In the woods, I don’t know where, I ran away but then I heard him calling for me. Please help.’
‘Can you get somewhere safe? Are there any buildings nearby?’
‘There’s nothing here. He came out of nowhere.’
‘I’m going to send police officers out straight away but you need to tell me which woods you’re in.’
‘Roslin Glen. We parked at the chapel and walked from there. He’s coming for me, I know he is.’
‘I’m going to stay on the line. You need to find somewhere you can hide, turn your phone to silent, and wait for the police to arrive.’
‘I hear footsteps.’ More sobbing. ‘Oh god, I think it’s him. Can you…’ the young woman broke off. Footsteps pounded through leaves. A man’s voice, deep and guttural, shouted something unintelligible in the distance. She cried out. The line went dead.
Finding the terrified woman should have been easy, but Rosslyn Chapel car park presented a whole new set of challenges. For a cold February night, there were an unexpected number of cars present. Ava called in every single officer she had immediately available, and requested backup in the form of any off-duty officer who could make it, then started trekking along the footpath to the glen and into the woods. It was her nose that had led her to the body. Investigate enough murders and you could smell blood a mile away.
Now there was a dead body lying at Ava’s feet. No point trying to perform CPR give that his windpipe had been severed so roughly. His home-knitted scarf had not been enough to protect his neck from the blade, and his matching gloves were a gummy mess where he’d tried for a few short seconds to stem the flow of blood. His girlfriend was somewhere in Roslin Glen, petrified, waiting for police and paramedics to arrive. Ava was hopeful, but not at all certain, that the young woman would be found in time.
She called in the location of the corpse, cursing the pitch dark as she flashed her torch every few seconds and waited for uniformed officers to find her, then guard the body until Scenes of Crime officers could take over. That wouldn’t be for a while, though. A knife-wielding murderer was on the prowl in the nature reserve, concealed somewhere in the thicket of trees, and she intended to find him before he knew the hunt was on.
‘M’am,’ a man whispered to her side. ‘You all right?’
‘Sergeant Lively,’ she replied. ‘How’s the perimeter coming?’
‘Slowly,’ he said. ‘There’s a huge area to cover. Should we not just get the lights and sirens blaring and clear the place out?’
‘Too dangerous until we’ve located the woman, and I want to get this bastard. He’s killed once, and he could kill again. And what’s with all the nighttime visitors here? It’s like the middle of summer in the car park.’
‘You really don’t know?’
‘Know what?’ Ava hissed.
‘It’s Valentine’s night. You’ve got people here from all over the bloody world trying to recreate scenes from Outlander, proposing to their beloveds while we’re running through the woods trying to figure out which one’s the killer.’
‘Bloody Valentine’s Day,’ Ava muttered. She looked down at the cooling corpse, knelt, dipped her hands in and out of his pockets, identifying a little box with her fingertips and issuing a soft sigh. She opened it as she stood up. The diamond solitaire absorbed the moonlight. ‘That’s probably what set this guy off. Right, the uniforms are here. Let’s get moving.’
‘Do you not think it’d be a better idea for you to co-ordinate from the car park?’
‘Yeah, that’s going to happen,’ she muttered, setting off.
They went low through the woodland, moving as fast as they could without crashing into branches. Ava waved Lively away to her right, spreading out to cover more ground. The scream that sliced through the night was not too far away. They began to sprint, Lively calling it in on his radio as they went. Racing into a deeper thicket, twigs snagged their clothes and hair. Lively’s breath grew increasingly ragged. There was no way he could keep up the pace for long. Ava sprinted ahead, torch on but pointed down at her feet.
Rounding a natural bend in a path, she paused. A man and woman were huddled on the ground against a fallen tree trunk, the man holding out a large branch like a sword, the shake of his hands producing a maraca-like rattle from the dried leaves.
‘Police,’ Ava said. ‘You’re safe now. What happened?’
‘There was a man, he jumped out from the undergrowth. Maniac was holding a knife - he lunged for us,’ the man said. ‘I hit him with this branch.’
‘Anyone hurt?’ Ava asked. They shook their heads. Lively, panting hard, finally caught up. ‘Can you describe the man?’
‘Not much. He had a black hat and a dark hoodie. He came out of nowhere,’ the woman said. ‘Thank god he backed off when we fought.’
‘Lively, stay here and keep them safe. Which direction did he go?’
As one, they pointed into the denser forest down the slope, off the beaten track.
‘M’am, please, wait for armed units,’ Lively puffed. Too little, too late. Ava was gone.
She went as fast as she could go quietly, fighting to control her breathing while her eyes adjusted to the dark. From tree to tree, she moved then paused, following the trampled plants and the snapped branches where someone had rushed through, bullish. A crackle of twigs issued from somewhere behind her. Ava stopped dead, ducked, grabbed a rock from the ground, and readied for a fight. Harsh breaths. Footsteps staggering, followed by a hard crash on the woodland floor. Then a cry, definitely female. Ava rushed forward, branches slapping her cheeks.
‘I’m here to help,’ she called out. ‘Where are you?’
The sobs were answer enough. The young woman was curled in a foetal position, half hidden by a bush, and trying to drag branches over herself for camouflage. She flinched and put up shaking hands when Ava approached.
‘I’m a police officer,’ Ava said. ‘I’m here to protect you. Are you hurt?’
The woman shook her head.
‘Good, now just…’
The hand was over her mouth before Ava had time to register that anyone was behind her. She brought both her hands up over her head to grab her attacker’s hair, digging her nails in hard as she fell left to put him off balance. The young woman on the floor was shrieking.
‘It’s me!’ the man whispered in his ear. The French accent took a second to sink in, before she released D.I. Luc Callanach’s scalp.
Ava reached out to calm and reassure the woman who had now scrambled entirely beneath a bush and was shivering in the darkness, pools of moonlight reflecting in her terrified eyes.
‘It’s okay, he’s another police officer. Everything will be all right now.’ Ava crawled as close as she could and held the woman’s hand.
‘He won’t stop. He’s already killed Mark. There were other people screaming, too.’
‘We won’t let anything happen to you,’ Luc whispered. ‘Stay down. There are other officers on their way.’
He and Ava stood up, standing guard, huddled together.
‘Does she know her attacker? What’s the motive?’ he asked.
‘Looks like it was linked to Valentine’s. This is a popular spot for proposals. He’s obviously been triggered, either by rejection or jealousy. How long until backup finds us?’
‘A few minutes. They’re still trying to seal off the whole area but we’re talking a few miles around the woodland and we don’t want him slipping out. We either reveal our presence and alert him, or wait it out and stop every single person as they exit the glen.’
‘I’m not letting this bastard get away. He’s killed once and attacked a second couple. He’ll do it again,’ Ava said.
‘If he’s looking for another victim and he finds them before we find him, can you really live with those consequences?’
Ava looked around, kicked additional leaves and twigs around the base of the bush under which the woman was hiding, then bent down again.
‘Stay here, keep silent. Whatever happens, don’t come out. This’ll all be over soon,’ she said. ‘Luc, come with me.’
She grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the bushes, up a small slope onto a clearer mound where the moonlight was better able to break through.
‘Ava, stop, we won’t be able to see him coming and our voices are going to travel. This is insane.’ She burst out laughing, giving Luc a playful slap on the shoulder. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
She leaned forward, slid her arms up around his neck and whispered into his ear.
‘Do your jacket up. I don’t want him seeing your stab vest. Then try looking like you’re madly in love with me, okay?’
Luc took a deep breath, pulled up the zip of his jacket so he could pass as any other member of the public and reciprocated the embrace, wrapping his arms around Ava’s waist.
‘That’s better,’ she said quietly. Then, much louder, ‘So, why did you ask me here tonight?’
‘Would you believe me if I said, just to get out of the house? Honestly, anything’s better than your cooking.’ He laughed and she gave him a mock shove.
‘Hey, we’ve been living together for months now and I think it’s been going pretty well, don’t you?’ Ava asked.
In the distance, an owl flew up from a tree branch with a startled squawk. They each held their nerve, refused to look.
‘I do, actually,’ Luc replied. ‘Very well. Better than I ever expected.’
‘In fact, I’m not sure I’d want to go back to living without you,’ Ava told him, keeping her voice good and loud.
‘I feel exactly the same,’ Luc said, smiling broadly and stroking her hair.
The sound of movement, snapping twigs, came from the area they’d left the woman hiding under the bush. Slow footsteps, careful, guarded. Ava pushed a tiny box into Luc’s hand.
‘Ready for this?’ she whispered. Luc nodded. If they didn’t draw him out now, there was every chance the attacker would hear the woman moving or crying.
‘I’m glad we both feel the same way,’ he said, ‘because…’ He stepped away from her, giving himself some space, went down on one knee, and in a grand gesture produced the engagement ring Ava had taken from the corpse earlier. ‘Ava Turner, from the moment I met you, I haven’t been able to imagine a future with anyone but you. You’re infuriating, exhausting, difficult, too independent for your own good, and you never let anyone else choose which film to watch.’ Ava allowed herself a small laugh at that, to cover her glance around at the surrounding trees. The moon had chosen the moment to hide, and the tiny slivers of light it left behind were not enough to see who might be watching them, and where they might be hiding. Luc took her left hand in his right. ‘I love you. Not in spite of those things, but because of them. Ava, marry me. Drive me crazy for the rest of my life. Argue with me every day. Frustrate me every hour. No one else makes me feel the way you do.’
Ava could feel a presence now, a sick, malevolence in the air, as if she were breathing the killer in. She fixed a smile on her face and held out her ring finger for Luc to slide the single, stunning diamond onto it, then stepped forward to kiss him as he stood up. The man was behind the tree to her left and Luc’s right. As their lips met, she put a hand to Luc’s chin and turned it so he was looking in the right direction.
The charge came low - much lower than she’d expected - faster and stronger too. He held the knife out in front, slashing as he sprinted, aiming at Luc. Ava swung round, shifting her body in front of Luc’s, feeling the knife connect with her knee and falling forward, knowing she had to grab some part of the attacker and slow him down. She got a hold on the killer’s jacket, just the bottom of his zip, and clung on with every ounce of strength she had, pulling him towards her, catching him off balance.
Luc shot out a hand and snagged his fingers in the man’s hair, pulling his head down and lifting a knee to ram it into the underside of the killer’s chin. There was a double click as his teeth clashed, parted, then clashed again. It echoed through the woods like shots, and from the distant hedge, the young woman cried out.
Ava was on the ground now, her injured knee buckling. She rolled and flung her arm out to find his hand, and the knife. Luc was there too, in the same space, and for a moment their fingers found one another’s in the writhing mass. Cold steel hit the back of her hand and she flicked her palm upward to grab it. Luc’s right hand found the man’s wrist, biting his fingers into the tendons like a vise. The knife fell. Ava caught it, then threw it into the woods behind them, out of reach.
Luc brought an elbow down on the back of the man’s neck, smashing into the top of his spine. There was a crunch, an expulsion of breath, and the killer landed on top of Ava, unconscious. Luc hauled his body away, rolling him onto his stomach and handcuffing his arms behind his back as Ava messaged Sergeant Lively.
‘You okay?’ Luc called to her.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, attempting to stand and giving up just as quickly, instead taking out her torch and shining it into the air to signal their position. ‘It’s just a scratch. Go look after her.’ She nodded in the direction of the woman in the bushes.
Two hours later Scenes of Crime had taken over, the attacker was in custody, and Ava was in Accident & Emergency having her knee stitched up. Luc sat at her side, having delivered coffee. Sergeant Lively appeared as the doctor was finishing up.
‘Y’all right then, m’am? Nothing permanent?’
‘Why, were you going to apply for my job, Lively?’ Ava asked.
‘Aye, well they offered it to me last time, but I turned it down. Too much boring paperwork. Some of us have to stay in the field and keep the public safe.’ He paused and frowned. ‘Is there…some sort of announcement you’d like to make, m’am?’
‘Well, I wish people would stop using Roslin in books and TV shows so it’s not a tourist Mecca any more.’
‘Nothing more personal, maybe?’ Lively asked.
‘Lively, what the hell is wrong with you? I need you back at the station…’ She stopped talking. ‘Oh, that. You idiot, Lively. It’s a bloody exhibit.’ She tugged at the engagement ring, which protested, then unwillingly squeaked off. ‘Take it, put it in an exhibit bag. It’s going to need to go to either the deceased’s family or to the woman who should have become his fiancée tonight.’
Luc handed over the ring box for Lively to keep it in. The sergeant took a cup of coffee, uninvited as ever, and disappeared.
‘I’ll bring the car round and pick you up,’ Luc said. ‘Can you walk to the door, or should I fetch a wheelchair?’
‘Not even answering that,’ Ava said.
Luc paused at the curtain to look back at her.
‘I meant what I said, about the last few months,' he said. 'They’ve been better than I expected. It feels wrong to say so, with Natasha having been so sick, but living with you has been good.’
‘Yeah,’ Ava replied quietly. ‘It’s been good for me, too.’ Her cheeks ran a deeper shade of pink for a second. ‘Just as long as you didn’t mean any of the other stuff you said!’ she continued with a grin. ‘Can’t have you going soft on me, now.’
‘Did it scare you, back in the woods?’ he asked, no smile on his face at all.
‘Being attacked in the dark by a knife-wielding murderer? What sort of fool wouldn’t be scared?’
‘That wasn’t what I meant, Ava,’ he said, walking away. ‘And you know it.’